A party that drew together hundreds on the eve of Independence Day has public health officials in Cass County scrambling to track down possible coronavirus infections that already number in the dozens.
The gathering prompted two school districts to cancel summer activities for two weeks, and the local health department has been “pushed to capacity” as it tries to find people infected. The party’s aftermath comes as the county saw the highest number of new cases — more than 70 — last week.
Tracing the cluster
By July 10, the Cass County Health Department had tied five positive cases to the party. Four days later, that number climbed to 25.
Since there wasn’t a guest list, trying to track people who might have been exposed is particularly challenging. Initially, the health department was told by attendees that roughly 100 to 200 people might have been at the party. But director Andrew Warlen said he’s now heard there were as many as 400 people there.
On Tuesday the department tested 135 people for the virus at a free testing event specifically for partygoers and their close contacts.
For a small health department, Warlen said that’s pushed his staff to capacity. Four new people hired to respond to the pandemic’s effect have helped. Those new jobs are paid for by federal coronavirus relief funding.
“At the moment we are being able to … keep up with the demand,” Warlen said. “It is certainly pushing our people.”
But he does worry if cases keep rising. The National Association of County and City Health Officials estimates health departments need 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people. Warlen said Cass County is “solidy below” that figure even when regular health department staff are figured in.
Missouri ranks last in the nation in per person public health funding, according to a State Health Access Data Assistance Center analysis of 2019 funding levels.
“When you don't have that infrastructure, you're kind of playing catch up,” Warlen said.
The uptick in cases hasn’t put a strain on the local hospital, according to Cass Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Sonya McLelland.
Patients with the coronavirus who need to be hospitalized for further treatment are taken to the Research Medical Center in Kansas City because that hospital has more critical care specialists, intensive care beds and ventilators, McLelland said in an email. If there’s a surge in hospitalizations, the Cass County hospital has four isolation rooms to take care of coronavirus patients.
“We’re not a bubble”
Since some party-goers were also involved in summer school activities, both the Pleasant Hill and Harrisonville school districts shut down extracurricular activities for 14 days. The case illustrates some of the difficulties that schools may have to navigate with in-person classes in the fall.
“If these behaviors continue, then we're going to have outbreaks that will impact our schooling, as well as our extracurricular activities,” Pleasant Hill Superintendent Steve Meyers said.
The school district closed all its athletic and extracurricular activities because it didn’t know “the extent of the exposure at the large weekend gathering or all of the students who were potentially exposed there,” Meyers wrote in a letter to parents Friday.
At the nearby Harrisonville school district, superintendent Paul Mensching said he’s worried about similar parties happening once school starts.
“Everybody understands that if we do open schools in the fall, that we are going to have positive tests, we will put these layers of protection in place to keep things as safe as possible. However, we're not a bubble,” Mensching said. “We can't 100% prevent COVID-19 from spreading.”